11 April 2023

Bert Comerford (1915-2005),
a Northampton-born
trade unionist in the
boot and shoe industry

The former G Webb & Sons factory in Brockton Street, Northampton … three generations of the Comerford family worked in the shoe industry in Northampton

Patrick Comerford

Herbert (Bert) Comerford (1915-2005) was a leading trade unionist in Britain throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Northampton was the leading city in the shoemaking industry and Bert was the third generation in a family that worked in the shoe and boot industry in Northampton.

Northampton and the county have a long history of shoemaking, dating back to the 12th century, when Northampton was a busy market town with a street of cordwainers or shoemakers. Northampton’s Shoemakers’ Guild was established in 1401.

Thomas Fuller, the Northamptonshire historian and churchman, wrote in 1660 that ‘the town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other men’s legs the most cheapest, if not the best, boots … in England are to be bought in Northampton.’ Daniel Defoe wrote in 1725 of ‘Shoes from Northampton for all, the poorest countrymen and the master.’

Bert Comerford was born in Northampton on 3 November 1915, a son of Herbert Comerford (1886-1970) and Mabel Louisa Lambourne (1891-1982).

It is possible that this branch of the Comerford family may be traced back to Peter Comerford (1720-1773), who was born in Ireland and moved to Brockley Hill, Edgeware, in the mid-18th century.

Bert’s father, Herbert Comerford, was born in Camberwell, London, on 25 June 1886, a son of Joseph Comerford (1852-1897), also a boot maker, and Catherine (Kate) Miller (1853-1915), from Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, who were married in the East End in Saint James the Great Church, Bethnal Green, on 7 August 1874.

Joseph and Kate Comerford were the parents of two daughters who were born in Hackney: Catherine and Clara Anne (1877-1965), who later married William Muddiman (18878-1942).

Joseph and Kate then moved to Northampton, where a son Joseph Comerford (1878-1958) was born in 1878.

They then seemed to have moved between Northampton and Newington, as Joseph Comerford continued to find work in the show industry, and they were the parents of four more children: Edward William Comerford (1880-1949), born in Newington on 25 May 1880; Thomas James Comerford (1884-1975), born in Northampton on 10 June 1884; Herbert (1886-1970), who was born in Camberwell in 25 June 1886; and Eliza Edith (1888-1933), who was born in Camberwell in 1888 and later married William Beal in Northampton in 1913.

Joseph and Kate Comerford eventually returned to live in Northampton, where they lived at 32 Wellington Street, and they were the parents of four more children: Elizabeth Miller (1890-1967), who was born on 4 August 1890 and married Frederick Stevens; Sarah Victoria (1893-1983) born 29 January 1893 and married William T Hollowell; George Albert Comerford (1895-1897), born 27 May 1897; and Lilly (1898-1899).

Joseph Comerford died in Northampton in 1897, when he was only 45 and his children were still young. His widow Kate later kept a boarding house at 84 Dunster Street, and died in Northampton in October 1915.

Their second son, Herbert Comerford, who was born in Camberwell in 1886, grew up in Alcombe Terrace and Dunster Street in Northampton, and followed his father into the boot-making trade. He married Mabel Louisa Lambourne in Northampton in April 1915.

Their elder son, Herbert Comerford, was born in November 1915. A younger son, Reginald Comerford, was born in Northampton on 10 February 1921.

Herbert, or Bert, Comerford, the future trade union leader, attended Kettering Road Intermediate School, and at the age of 15 followed his father and grandfather into the shoemaking trade. He first became a clicker in the shoemaking industry, working for G Webb & Sons at their factory in Brockton Street, Northampton.

The clickers became known as the elite or the ‘gentlemen’ of shoemakers. Their role involved cutting out the shoe uppers from the precious fine leathers using knives with very curved and sharply pointed blades. This highly skilled role became known as ‘clicking’ as the concentration required to carry out the task required silence – the only noise in the clicking room would be the click-click of blade piercing leather and the wooden cutting block underneath.

Bert married Ella Mary Everitt (1917-2011) in Northampton in January 1940. She was a daughter of George Everitt and Maud EE Bennett of Northampton.

Bert was in the British Army during World War II, but he returned to the shoemaking trade in Northampton in 1946. He was a long-term member of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives (NUBSO) when he began working full-time for the union in 1959. In the 1960s, he was living at 10 Lea Road, Northampton.

He became the union’s assistant general officer in 1969. The union merged with other unions in 1970 to form the National Union of the Footwear, Leather and Allied Trades (NUFLAT), and Bert Comerford was elected as its first General President, the leading position in the union. The union sponsored Labour Party candidates in several parliamentary elections.

But the 1970s proved to be a difficult period for the footwear industry in Britain, and when he retired in 1980, Bert described how he regretted leaving while the decline continued. Today, however, Northampton and the county’s shoemaking industry thrives. The town is still recognised across the world for making high-quality men’s footwear which reinterprets classic styles for each new generation of discerning wearers.

Bert Comerford was made an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 1981 New Year Honours list. In retirement, he served as an honorary member of the Clothing and Footwear Institute. He died in July 2005. His widow Ella died on 28 January 2011.

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (3) 11 April 2023

The East Window by Nathaniel Westlake (1888) dominates the chancel and Holy Trinity Church in Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Easter Day on Sunday (9 April 2023) ushered in all our hopes and joys.

I was expecting a post-stroke consultation at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford later today. However, this has been postponed due to the strike by junior doctors in the NHS.

But, even before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. In these days of Easter Week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the stained-glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The East Window:

Over the past two mornings, I have described six windows in the nave and transepts of Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, by Daniel Bell of Bell and Almond and Henry Holiday of James Powell and Son depicting: the Nativity, Christ in the home of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph; the baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist; the Resurrection; the Supper at Emmaus; and Pentecost.

For the rest of this week, I am looking at the East Window in the chancel. This spectacular Rose window by Nathaniel Westlake in 1888, with eight lobes around a large central circle dominates the chancel and the whole church.

This window was the final element in the scheme of decoration in the church carried out from 1870 on under the supervision of the Stony Stratford-born architect Edward Swinfen Harris.

The window provides a magnificent climax to the interior of Holy Trinity Church, unfailingly drawing the attention of worshippers and visitors to the high altar, above which it hovers like a great rising sun.

The window depicts the Crucifixion, with the Virgin Mary and Saint John, Christ with an inner circle depicting the Disciples at the Last Supper, the Passover story, and two other scenes from the Exodus story; the middle circle depicts key six Biblical figures – Amos, Daniel, Job, David, Jeremiah and Isaiah – and two IHS symbols; the outer circle is crowned with the Risen Christ at the top, and a symbol of the Holy Trinity beneath, and contains six Biblical scenes that are Eucharistic allegories: Adam and Eve, Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s sacrifice, Melchizedek’s sacrifice, Abraham’s sacrifice, and the Tree of Life in the Book of Revelation.

The stained glass artist NHJ Westlake (1833-1921) also completed many of the windows in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. He worked under William Burges for a while before joining the stained-glass firm of Lavers and Barraud in 1868.

Nathaniel Westlake later became a partner and finally the sole proprietor of Lavers, Barraud & Westlake (1855-1920s), a London-based firm established in 1855 by Nathaniel Wood Lavers (1828-1911). The firm changed its name several times with the arrival and departure of each partner. Francis Philip Barraud (1824-1900), who moved from James Powell and Sons, became a partner in 1858. Nathaniel Westlake joined in 1868, having designed for the firm since 1858.

After Barraud died in 1900, the firm was known as Lavers, Westlake and Co, although Westlake had been the sole proprietor since 1880. After 1909, the company became NHJ Westlake, London, and moved to Maida Vale in 1917, before closing in the 1920s.

The East Window provides a magnificent climax to the interior of Holy Trinity Church in Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 20: 11-18 (NRSVA):

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The East Window depicts the Crucifixion surrounded by Biblical figures and scenes, an image of Christ the King and symbols of the Holy Trinity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘USPG’s Lent Appeal: supporting young mothers affected By HIV.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Fundraising Manager, Rebecca Allin, who reflected on the 2023 Lent Appeal supporting young mothers affected by HIV, and their children.

The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (11 April 2023, Tuesday of Easter Week) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for a deepening of our faith. May the light of Easter shine in our hearts, illuminate our minds, and inform our actions.


Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion:

God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The East End and East Window of Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, seen from the church grounds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org